OpinionAntisemitism

Erdoğan and the essential hypocrisy of antisemitism

The Turkish president accuses Israel of crimes against humanity while refusing to acknowledge the crimes of his own country.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo by Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo by Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

It often feels as if a global contest is underway over who can engage in the most depraved antisemitic invective. The competition is fierce. Everyone from celebrity activists to Hamas terrorists to campus thugs is in the running. The resulting pyrotechnics have been impressive. Indeed, one has rarely seen a group of human beings so enthusiastic about diving headfirst into raw sewage. As yet, however, no clear frontrunner has emerged.

But there does seem to be one who stands out from the rest. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had not covered himself in glory before the Israel-Hamas war started. The venerable Islamist antisemite has dominated Turkish politics through populist Jew-hatred for a generation.

The laundry list of Erdoğan’s demented ravings is too long to detail here. Suffice it to say that he regularly accuses Israel of innumerable crimes against humanity. He has called Israel’s leaders Nazis and, at times, asserted that they are worse than the Nazis. He has a particular obsession with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he regularly burns in rhetorical effigy.

This orgy of racist invective has been underway for years, but it hit a new peak of defamation and incitement during Israel’s current war.

In this, Erdoğan is not unusual. The blood libel is perhaps more popular today than it ever was. But Erdoğan may be the foremost example of it because he is so paradigmatic. In many ways, he literally personifies today’s antisemitism. In particular, he embodies perhaps its most essential aspect: hypocrisy.

Antisemites used to be fairly open about the fact that their attitudes were evil. They reveled in the race hatred to which they freely confessed. This is not the case today. Our era’s antisemites always couch their genocidal seethings in the language of peace, justice, human rights and so on. Even when pinned down, the best they can muster up is a wan moral equivocation. Back then, Louis-Ferdinand Céline could proudly declare, “A pile of a million dead stinking yids is not worth the life of a single Aryan.” Today, his heirs simply mumble, “It depends on the context.” Celine was a monster, no doubt, but at least he had the courage of his hideous convictions.

In Erdoğan’s case, hypocrisy does not just typify his antisemitism, it defines it. He falsely accuses Israel of Nazism (which is antisemitic in and of itself) while he engages in regular antisemitic demonization. He does so while supporting Hamas, which is as inspired by Nazism as by radical Islam. He accuses Israel of infinite crimes against humanity because of a war Israel launched in response to a rampage of crimes against humanity committed by the group he proudly supports.

Erdoğan clearly thinks that his defamation helps delegitimize Israel. In fact, it delegitimizes nothing so much as his own country. Because whether Erdoğan likes it or not, Turkey is a nation with a long history of heinous crimes against humanity.

Turkey, we should not forget and Erdoğan surely knows, is the rump of what was once the Ottoman Empire. That empire was one of the most brutal and rapacious of its kind in history. Emerging out of the steppes of the East, it rampaged westward, conquering enormous swaths of territory in the Middle East and North Africa. It then turned towards Europe, slaughtering its way through the Balkans before finally being turned back at the gates of Vienna.

Along the way, the Ottomans exterminated the Christian Byzantine Empire and committed cultural genocide by conquering Constantinople and forcibly converting the centuries-old Hagia Sophia church into a mosque. The Ottomans also sponsored mass piracy in the Mediterranean and one of the world’s most brutal slave trades. Perhaps unsatisfied with mere forced labor, the Ottomans subjected many of their slaves to mass castration.

Lest one labor under the misapprehension that all this ended along with the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey was, in many ways, built on genocide. While the extermination of the Armenians is well-known—though still denied by the very Turkish government led by Erdoğan—there was also mass slaughter of the Anatolian Greeks and other minorities. As for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, they have been the target of decades of attempts at cultural genocide and innumerable state atrocities.

In one of the Turkish government’s few concessions to common decency, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a secular space rather than an exclusively Muslim house of worship. Erdoğan, however, recently reversed that policy, apparently believing that he has the right to appropriate what centuries of Christian labor brought into being.

All of this reveals the heart of the modern antisemite: Erdoğan accuses Israel of infinite crimes while standing on ground stolen from Greeks, Armenians, and other non-Muslims. He does so while continuing to deny the historical crimes his own country has committed. He does all this while supporting genocidal terrorists. He is, in other words, a hypocrite on a world-historical scale.

There is hardly a country in the world without skeletons in its closet. All empires are built and maintain themselves by ugly and often reprehensible means. As Balzac said: Behind every great fortune lies a crime. What makes Erdoğan and indeed all of today’s antisemites so particularly obnoxious is not that they have a sinister past but that they refuse to admit it. Instead, they project their own crimes onto Israel and the Jews. Convinced of their own infinite sainthood, they feel no compunctions about committing any atrocity necessary to expiate themselves of their own unacknowledged sins. Nothing soothes pain more effectively than inflicting it.

Erdoğan is not alone in this. The Arab world was also partly built on imperialism, settler-colonialism and genocide. The radical left has tens of millions of deaths on its conscience thanks to Stalin, Mao and others. This, again, does not make them historical anomalies. However, it ought to give them pause. It might be better if they acknowledged their past crimes and did the work necessary to make amends rather than spend their time defaming others.

This world-historical hypocrisy teaches us that whatever the antisemites’ absurd pretensions to sainthood, we do not have to accept them. It is unlikely that saints actually exist, but if they did, they would not be guilty of genocide, imperialism, setter-colonialism or antisemitism for that matter. The saints of antisemitism can howl and wail, but their hypocrisy proves that we are under no obligation to listen to a word they say.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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